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Elizabeth Barnes
College of William and Mary

“The Children of Boston”: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Men

In Observations on the Principles and Methods of Infant Instruction, Bronson Alcott makes the claim that “Play is the appointed dispensation of childhood” and it is in the “freedom” of “childish amusements” that a child’s “character is most clearly revealed.”  Several pages later, however, Alcott notes that the child’s “prominent tendencies” in working out his or her relation to others is toward “Sympathy and imitation.”  This paper is an attempt to navigate these two observations–that is, to understand how the freedom of play, including the aggression freely expressed therein, gets reconciled with the socializing demands of imitation and sympathy, or what we today would call empathy. To do so, I offer a literary analysis of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Men (1871), a novel whose pedagogy, as she herself contends, is directly informed by her father’s principles and methods.   My aim is neither to advance nor critique Bronson Alcott’s theories, but rather to explore the ways in which the “childish amusements” in Little Men–ranging from the ritual burning of Demi and Daisy’s toys to their imaginary god, the “Naughty Kitty-Mouse,” to tomboy Nan’s persistent neglect and even abuse of her long-suffering dolls–reveal not only the child’s character, but the novelist daughter’s own ideas about child development.  Crucial to that development, I will argue, is the displacement of aggression onto, or into, the child him/herself through empathy.
If, as Bronson Alcott avers, a child’s relation to others is worked out through play, Little Men reveals how violent those interactions can be.  Upon discovering the charred remains of the children’s favorite doll, Annabelle, (whose “life-like” demise in the fire sends Jo Bhaer’s little boy running to her in horror), Mother Jo chides the children with the announcement that she will have to “write up in the nursery the verse that use to come in the boxes of toys:

‘The children of Holland take pleasure in making,
What the children of Boston take pleasure in breaking.’”

While Jo reprimands her charges with ironic gravity, her humorous words have serious implications: much of the “childish amusements” in the novel do, in fact, involve the pleasure of breaking.  However, such pleasure is not confined to children alone: in their attempts to imitate adult behavior (for Daisy and Demi, playing “sackkeryfice” like the “big boys” and for Nan, “playing house” like the big girls), the children reveal the aggressive impulses retained in adulthood, but expressed through, as well as toward, children.  (As Alcott’s narrator astutely observes about Nan’s anti-maternal feeling, she was “unconsciously expressing the desire of many older ladies, who cannot dispose of their families so easily, however.”) Since children and dolls are repeatedly shown to stand in for one another in Little Men, the “pleasure of breaking” ultimately appears a masochistic, as well as a sadistic enterprise.  While at first liberating, the children’s violent acts ultimately become the tutors of their new, painfully-acquired sensibility, one founded on the notion that they must learn to identify with the things they destroy. 

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